Every professional encounters times in their job when they feel overwhelmed. There never seems to be enough time to get all the work needed done. Things pile up on your desk, in your inbox, and on your task list. Even with all of the process improvement theories about reducing waste, improving organization, and streamlining your procedures, it can feel like you cannot take the time to put those practices in place. However, taking the time to develop workflows can improve your performance while saving you time in the long run. That is why “taking the time” results in “saving you time”.
In this article, we will look at workflows, workflow management, and how they are incorporated in the discipline and actual practice of project management. We’ll explore the benefits and history of types of workflows and how they can be customized. We will then dive in depth into workflow management systems categorization and software. We’ll also review the features to look for in a workflow software system, and give helpful tips for picking the right solution
What Is a Workflow?
Simply put, a workflow is a visual diagram of a structured, predefined set of activities that produce a desired result. Workflows can be a basic, sequential advancement of steps, or a complex series of events that must occur in parallel with specified dependencies, rules, and requirements. In theory, every time you run the same workflow, you have the same result. A workflow consists of the steps, the resources needed to accomplish the steps (such as your staff or machinery), and how these interact. Workflows delineate start and end points, the direction(s) of movement, where there may be decision points, what you expect for results, and potential substitute steps. Finally, responsibility is assigned for each step.
Once workflows are in place, it is a simple process to optimize results. It becomes easier to visualize where waste can be eliminated and efficiencies created. Successful workflows can help improve communication within your staff and measure growth. However, it is important to remember that when we discuss workflows, we are talking about how the results actually get accomplished, not the protocols that dictate the work being done.
Within the realm of project management, workflows are important because they bring the capacity for predictability and measurement of outcomes. Project managers love workflows because amongst their moving pieces and parts where constant planning and coordination have to happen, workflows provide expected results.
10 Unexpected Benefits of Using Workflows
Workflows save time and certainly ensure transparency and reproducibility. They also can do a lot more. Consider these ten benefits of incorporating workflows in your project management.
- Workflows reduce project risk. When a project is at risk, it elevates project complexity and the number of team members can increase. Workflows can ensure that there are decreased delays in the schedule. It can also be responsible for reducing possible disputes and costs by limiting the need to redo work.
- Effect organizational change. When a team works cohesively, it limits the need for for management to intervene on the business process side and can provide an improved understanding of the workflow.
- Implementing workflows can lead process change. As part of developing a workflow, businesses must scrutinize their current processes. This can lead to improvements and optimizations.
- Workflows give increased access to information. Critical processes may be reviewed at every point, ensuring that there are no bottlenecks or issues. This oversight allows project managers to determine how well the process is running from end-to-end.
- Workflows delineate work responsibility to different people. Instead of your staff being uncertain about whose responsibility it is to complete a task or where their own duties lie, a workflow defines it for them.
- Improves project timeline estimates. Gives project managers a basis to estimate how long a task or the overall project will take.
- Provides visibility. Workflows are a way to visually communicate the process to stakeholders.
- Managers can focus on strategy. When a system is running smoothly, managers don’t need to spend time focusing on operations. Instead, they can pay attention to other parts of their job, which can promote business growth and development.
- Workflows provide an audit trail. This is especially true when using a workflow management software system. Records are kept of the progress and completion of tasks, along with pertinent details such as who completed the action, when it was done, and any changes made.
- Businesses can input rules. Instead of people deciding in the moment when issues arise, workflows refer back to the predefined rules. This eliminates some of the guesswork, saving time and boosting confidence in the organization’s work capacity.
Key Components of Workflows
Although models of workflows can differ slightly in terminology, the components outlined below are consistent throughout each method. Professionals may describe their diagrams as informal or formal. Informal workflows are simple, do not require special software, and may be just a diagram or a flowchart delineating a sequence of steps. Formal workflows may be comprised of several software systems and referred to as analytical pipelines. Each workflow component or step may be described by three parameters: input, transformation, and output.
- Input: The materials and resources that are required to complete a step.
- Transformation: A specific set of rules that dictate how the input is received and what is done to it.
- Output: The materials and resources that are produced by the step and that act as input to the next step(s).
Four main components make up the bulk of workflows. When modeling workflows, each should at least consist of actors, activities, results, and states.
- Actors are people or a machine that is responsible for at least part of the work.
- Activities are the tasks or business processes that are performed and represent a single, logical step in the process. When activities are performed in a specific manner, it is termed an action. Activities are structured in a way that are appropriate for the person or machine to accomplish before moving on to the next one. When actors are coupled with activities in a pair, it is called a task. When dependency conditions are fulfilled, tasks are activated.
- Results are the desirable outcomes of each step.
- State occurs when a project is between processes. Flow control ensures that the flow of processes are heading in the prescribed direction from each state, based on how they are defined.
Documenting the workflow process is critical to project managers, professionals, and researchers alike because it offers a roadmap for the future, increases transparency and reproducibility, and allows for data analysis within the data lifecycle. Experts in the field recommend clearly capturing how the data is analyzed and transformed.
The History of Workflows
Workflows can be traced back to manufacturing in the 1920’s and the study of rational organization. Pioneers such as Frederick Taylor and Henry Gantt, both mechanical engineers and early “project managers” studied how to organize work efficiently and graphically, especially in manufacturing. Henry later adopted the Polish harmonogram and transformed it into a Gantt chart to help track work. Gantt charts are a useful tool for visualizing workflows or to create a timeline to layout the milestones, schedules, and dependencies.
From manufacturing, “workflows” and this rational organization of work moved into offices. One book from 1950, Office Methods, Systems, & Procedures, by I.A. Herrman, discusses the use of “work flow diagrams” to solve various types of problems. In 1962, Carl Petri ‘s dissertation on a mathematical model of distribution was introduced. The Petri net model eventually became the business process logic for the design of workflow systems and software. The 1990’s saw workflows evolve from basic, one-size-fits-all diagramming to industry-specific software systems that allow for better process control.
Workflow Improvement Theories
There are many theories that businesses can use to improve their processes. The basic philosophies of these improvement theories take into consideration the company’s experience, needs, and input to create the most targeted workflows.
- Six Sigma. In a nutshell, this theory breaks down a process into minute detail. Six Sigma will help minimize variation by aiding in standardizing the workflow process.
- Lean systems. Lean works to improve the process workflow by constantly looking for improvement and ways to do more with less.
- Total Quality Management. This system refines quality at each step to fine-tune the processes.
- Business Process Reengineering (BPR). A methodology that uses workflow management software to support Business Process Reengineering (BPR).
- Theory of Constraints. This theory focuses on managing bottlenecks and evaluating the bottleneck fixes, especially in manufacturing, of your workflows.
Examples of Workflows Across Different Industries
Workflows are as diverse as the industries and people that use them. The following are simple examples of how workflows may be used in various industries.
- Human Resources: Workflows can dictate new hire processes, how leave is processed, annual training requirement, and pay processes.
- Pharmaceutical Manufacturing: Using workflows in quality control in areas such as testing of raw materials, production of medicines, packaging of products, post-manufacture testing, and preparation for shipment.
- Customer Service: A workflow which assigns investigations for customer complaints.
- Military: Deploys workflow to manage a hostile situation and follow the rules of engagement.
- Travel: Employs a workflow to manage a client’s flight, hotel, tours, and auto rental reservations for a travel agency.
- Healthcare: A workflow which manages the receipt of a prescription from a physician through its filling and eventual pick up processes by the patient.
- IT: Uses workflows to dictate how each type of software/hardware issue called in by a staff member is addressed.
How Workflow Management Differs from Project Management
Workflow management and project management are similar concepts; they are related, but they are not identical. Workflow management is business process automation. These business processes are defined, generally stay the same (or similar), and occur often. Workflow management may apply repetitive processes with small changes regularly. By contrast, project management is a larger process of coordinating, planning, and being in the state of constant flux and requiring a response to changes for specified, unique projects. Many tools, resources, and processes may be used to achieve the organization’s goal and complete the project.
Understanding Workflow Management Systems
Workflow management systems (WfMS) are software systems that provide the infrastructure to arrange, track, control, and coordinate the business process known as workflows. A WfMS should allow the user to define the workflows needed based upon different circumstances- jobs, processes, and settings. Further, many WfMS’s allow for the analysis and measurement of the processes so that opportunities for improvement and streamlining may be identified and made.
Many WfMS’s are capable of automatic routing, automated processing, combining multiple (otherwise) independent systems and processes into a cohesive structure, integrating with existing infrastructure, and organizing products from assorted sources. WfMS’s can also provide notifications and give the next person the data they need to complete their step, and provide follow-up for uncompleted tasks. These capabilities increase the value-addition of the workflow system.
Three types of workflows may be built by workflow management systems, the use of which is dependent upon the needs of the project. These include sequential workflows, state machine workflows, and rules-driven workflows.
- A sequential workflow is linear and progressive, like a flow chart. This workflow goes from one task or process to another and does not step back in the sequence.
- A state machine workflow is more complex than a sequential workflow and may step back in the sequence if a dependency mandates. These workflows go from one “state” to another “state”.
- A rules-driven workflow is essentially a higher-level sequential workflow. “Rules” determine the workflow progress. They use conditions to decide if expressions are “true” or “false,” and the rules are modeled with the “if,” “then,” or “else” expressions.
Benefits and Features of Workflow Management Software
Workflow software or workflow engines enable businesses to automate repetitive business processes guaranteeing the same (or very similar) results each time. Businesses and project managers need comprehensive, integrated software solutions that provide them with the flexibility and accountability to get their jobs done.
The best workflow management system is the one that meets your business needs. Some companies offer “lightweight” systems, which means that the program is simpler or faster and has fewer components than other offerings on the market. Some technology experts say that “lightweight” systems are easier to use and sometimes use less memory. Some workflow management systems are part of a larger systems overall, and are but one small part. Most technology experts say that regardless of your choice, users must have one platform that can manage all of their workflows.
The list below gives an overview of features that may be found in the currently available software. Technology experts recommend determining which features are critical for your business processes and basing your choice on which features are available in each.
- Offers automatic processes
- Adaptive and flexible (Can you change your workflow case to case?)
- Offer unlimited dependencies
- Allows parallel execution of steps and branches
- Grid-based (local only)
- Kanban boards
- Offers different ways to visualize your workflows
- Leverages current infrastructure
- Integrates with Microsoft Office Products
- Integrates with SAP and other services
- Integrates with Java/Unix/Oracle
- Intuitive to learn/use
- Measurement- dashboard metrics
- KPI-based – provides analytical reports
- Notifications and alerts to staff
- Role based access and controls
- Audit trail
- Cost and cost schedule
- Open-source (options)
- Time-tracking and timesheets
- Resource management
- Tracking profitability
- Client Portal
- Create invoices and forms
- Saas based
- Budget forms and tracking
- Compatible document management software
- Gantt charts
Build Powerful, Automated Workflows with Smartsheet
Regardless of the type of workflow process you create, you’ll want to build it in a reliable, automated platform that seamlessly connects to your other business processes and tools and provides easy collaboration. One such tool is Smartsheet, the world’s leading SaaS platform for managing and automating collaborative work. Smartsheet is designed to increase work agility and collaboration by providing a powerful platform for organizations to plan, track, automate, and report on work.
You can build automated approval processes without a single line of code, complex formulas, or help from IT. Achieve faster progress by creating automated approval requests and automated update requests that are triggered based on preset rules. Use Smartsheet to automate and streamline the following approval processes: time card tracking, sales discounts, procurement, HR hiring, content, and more. Plus, Smartsheet integrates with the tools you already use, to seamlessly connect your efforts across applications.
Get from idea to impact, faster, by building a powerful, automated approval process in Smartsheet.
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